PlayStations power Air Force's lean, green supercomputer

Condor cluster delivers energy-efficient high-performance computing on the cheap

The Air Force has long taken an interest in using video games for simulation and modeling, but it's now using their underlying technology for supercomputing.

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Condor Cluster project is using video game console components to make a supercomputer. Built from off-the-shelf components, the guts of the Condor Cluster consist of 1,716 Sony PlayStation 3 game consoles.

Speaking to reporters at a DOD Live Bloggers Roundtable, Mark Barnell, director of high performance computing and the Condor Cluster project at the AFRL, the computer is designed to operate at speeds around half a petaflop, or some 500 trillion floating-point calculations per second. He added that the cluster is currently the 35th or 36th fastest computer in the world. With some tweaks, it could be bumped up to around the 20th fastest machine, he added.


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But raw speed is not one of the Condor Cluster’s goals. It’s a green machine, designed to demonstrate new ways to use supercomputing resources while using less energy. It is currently the greenest computer in the world, Barnell said.

The computer is also designed to be affordable. The cluster cost $2 million to build and is much less expensive than general purpose supercomputers, whose prices begin at $50 million. (The PlayStation 3 sells for $299 on Amazon. com, so the retail cost of 1,716 of them would be $513,084.)

Condor’s main task is neuromorphic computing — running “learning” algorithms that can teach a machine to read letters, words, symbols and sentences. With such software, a computer could theoretically be instructed to read text and fill in any gaps on its own. The American Forces Press Service reports that one of the driving goals behind this effort is to have a computer that can take in millions of lines of data and be able to fill in gaps or rearrange material in case of human error.

The cluster can absorb information at about 20 pages per second. Barnell said that even with 20 percent to 30 percent of the characters removed from each page, the computer can recover all of the data with 99.9 percent accuracy. Such a capability would be very useful to Air Force intelligence analysts trying to parse information out of fragmentary documentation.

This is not the first time Sony PlayStations have been used for science. GCN reported on how scientists at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth used a cluster built from eight consoles to model the ripples in space time produced by black holes.

Physics professor Guarav Khanna told GCN that he was attracted to PlayStation 3 because it is an open computing platform and possesses a great deal of raw computing power. Each PS3 processor is equal to about 25 processors in a traditional supercomputer.

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Reader Comments

Wed, Mar 14, 2012

They used 1st generation PS3s wired together through the high speed data port on the back. They are running on a version of Yellow Dog linux. No, the cores in PS3s, XBOX360s, and Wii's are not the same. The PS3 has a cell core, the XBOX has a powerful, optimized standard core, and a Wii has a much weaker standard core.

Tue, Jan 4, 2011

If IBM turned on more cores the PS3 is of course capable. It is inhibited for gaming and heat generation. All three game machines use the same core, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. All IBM Fishkill plant.

Thu, Dec 16, 2010

I'm sure they didn't use them "out of the box" so the model is irrelevant. They likely used the cores in another specifically designed shell for the task.

Thu, Dec 16, 2010 Martin

Did they use the old PS3's or the new PS3 Slim models? Because the PS3 Slims have a lot of heat generation problems since some of the cooling components were skimped on a little bit by Sony for the size savings. If you run one for more than an hour, and sometimes less than that, you will hear the case "cracking" as the plastic shell expands. Having almost 2,000 of them in a room would be pretty loud, and would produce a heck of a lot of hot air.

Thu, Dec 16, 2010

PS3's have long been used for distributed computing of tasks that would require a supercomputer, i.e. Folding@home project is an example.

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